After living with Jennie Churchill for seven years, Ralph Martin began to suffer unexplainable headaches.
He couldn't eat. He couldn't sleep. And most of all he couldn't write.
"I finally realized," he says, "that I didn't want her to die."
Three months later, Martin finished his best-selling biography of Winston Churchill's Brooklyn-born mother.
Ten years and 3 million copies later, there's another woman in Martin's life, Cissy Patterson, the outrageous editor of the old Washington Times-Herald. "Cissy: The Extraordinary Life of Eleanor Medill Patterson" has an initial printing of 50,000 copies at $14.95 apiece and is a Book of the Month Club selection.
Martin has spent the last three of his 59 years flirting with Patterson. He knows her lovers, her friends, her daughter, even her psychoanalyst. He is equally versed in the details of her debutante days here in Washington, her years as a Viennese countess, her drinking bouts with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Somerset Maugham in France, her forays into acting and novel writing in Chicago, her editorial excesses here at the Times-Herald and, ultimately, her lunge into the hedonism of cocaine.
And Martin tells all. When Patterson and Alice Roosevelt Longworth were locked in competition for the seductive Sen. William Borah, Patterson trysted with the congressman in her competitor's own bed.And when Longworth returned a pair of hairpins she found the next day, Patterson audaciously suggested that she check the chandelier, saying, "You'll probably find my panties up there."
"To ingore her sexuality," says Martin, estimating that Patterson had 160 lovers, "would be like ignoring the oratorical skills of Adlai Stevenson."
Martin has spent the past 20 years delving into the lives of famous women.
"What's fascinated me as a biographer," he says, "is that all these women (the Duchess of Windsor, as well as Lady Churchill and Cissy Patterson), had a great zest for life, and they were forced to make a choice between love and power. Women have an extra dimension of some kind. It's as if women are supposed to know only what men tell them. But when they emerge as characters, they tend to display a power that surprises everyone."
Patterson, for instance, derived a particular sense of power by inviting political enemies to parties at her Dupont Circle home. And fights erupted -- with almost predictable regularity.
"I'd rather raise hell than raise a garden," she'd say.
And fights erupted -- with almost predictable regularity.
Patterson grew up in a 91-room mansion in Chicago. Her grandfather owned The Chicago Tribune, and her brother went on to found The New York Daily News.
But there was little love between young Cissy and her mother, and she left Miss Porter's finishing school prematurely to live in Vienna with her uncle, Robert McCormick, U.S. envoy to the Court of Franz Josef.
Away from her mother, she was free to explore. Within a year she had decided to marry the Polish Count Gizycki, a promiscuous gambler who sired their daughter. After the count began to beat her, she fled to London and he responded by kidnaping their daughter -- an act resolved only by the international intercession of President Taft and the czar of Russia.
So she returned to Washington, took up with a cowboy named Cal Carrington, and moved out to his neck of the woods -- Jackson Hole, Wyoming. She learned to ride Western, hunt and sleep on the ground in a bedroll. Periodically she returned to Washington to host dinner parties at Dupont Circle, where senators and congressmen would find themselves seated next to Cal, her guest of honor.
As with most of the romances in her life, Cal went the way of all flesh. Patterson then married a lawyer and moved to New York. She soon entered the circle of the Algonquin Round Table, where she persuaded Dorothy Parker to enter therapy with her analyst Alvin Barach. One day Parker announced that she finally understood why Barach kept telling her to work at least five hours a day: "I just got his bill."
Patterson next took up with William Randolph Hearst -- even as Hearst was virtually living with actress Marion Davies -- and became editor of the Hearst-owned Times-Herald.
Through all this Patterson managed to ignore daughter Felicia, just as her mother had ignored her. While she was editing the Times-Herald, she was carrying on a lesbian romance with the paper's picture editor and testing her daughter's marriage to columnist Drew Pearson:
"One day," says Martin, "Felicia came home and walked into her bathroom, only to discover Pearson and Cissy going at it on the tile floor."
Beyond her passion was a combination of compassion and toughness.
Once she fired an editor. He returned the next day with a gun, threatening to kill her. She looked him in the eye and said, "You don't have the guts." The poor guy skulked out of her office.
But she could pose as a pauper and report on women seeking jobs and write about Einstein crying at a Chaplin movie.
And she was savvy. She tried -- unsuccessfully -- to buy The Washington Post, which bought the Times-Herald in 1954, six years after her death.
"You have to be a dramatist and a detective to be a biographer," says Martin.
To this end he tracked down over 200 of Patterson's friends and lovers -- beginning, he says, at the outside so that "by the time I get to the center the character has already come alive and I can ask real questions about this person."
Martin discovered his fascination with the biographical form as a reporter for "Stars and Stripes" during World War II.
"Even when you're covering the war," he says, "you're really writing biographies. It's not who won the battle; it's this group of guys and what they think and what they feel."
His first book was "Boy from Nebraska," a biography of Ben Kuroki, a kid of Japanese descent refused by the Army during WWII because of his background. Since then he's written 22 more, learning all the time that "people love to talk about other people, whether they love them or hate them.
"When I was doing 'Jennie' I discovered a trove of old letters in Blenheim Palace. And when I'd go and talk with people who were mentioned in them, they'd get great pleasure recalling old events. Once I sat on the Riviera talking with the Duchess of Windsor. We started at 6 p.m., and at midnight she realized she had forgotten to eat dinner. After that book ("The Woman He Loved") people began to trust me. When I was talking with Alice Roosevelt (Longworth) about Cissy, she said, 'I said a lot of things, but Cissy did them.' They may have hated each other once, but the biographer gives them a chance to make amends.
Martin says Felicia, who's now in her mid-70s, called him four months ago, after the book was already in galleys, and told him this strange tale:
"I always hated my mother. I felt that I divorced my mother. But talking to you made me realize some of the gaps in her life. The other day I was driving my car and I sensed my mother's presence in the back seat.
"And I turned to her and told her to come sit in the front. And she came up, and for the first time in my life I was able to say, 'Mother, I love you.'"